Lakers continue to build chemistry, move into the playoff picture with win over Bulls

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LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long time in the making, and there’s plenty more work to be done over the regular season’s final 18 games. But for the first time all year, the Lakers can look at the standings and see themselves as an official part of the playoff picture after Sunday’s 90-81 win over the Bulls at Staples Center.

The Lakers are now 33-31 on the season, and sit in the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings, a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz.

In Friday night’s win over the Raptors, the Lakers needed several shots that were both miraculous and heroic from Kobe Bryant down the stretch to come back and get the overtime victory. They didn’t need much from him offensively in this one, however, thanks to a balanced attack and a strong third quarter from Steve Nash, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the period.

Bryant didn’t even reach double figures in scoring until he hit a three-pointer with 4:52 remaining in the third quarter, which pushed the Lakers lead to 15. He finished with a team-high 19 points, to go along with seven rebounds and nine assists, while five of his teammates finished in double digits.

The Bulls are not known for their offense, and struggled to score in this one. Chicago shot a dismal 37.1 percent from the field, and went just 4-16 from three-point distance. But the defensive effort from the Lakers was stronger than usual, led by an increasingly more active Dwight Howard, whose 21 rebounds helped L.A. dominate the Bulls on the glass for most of the contest.

Chicago was able to cut a lead that once reached 18 points down to eight with just over eight minutes remaining in the fourth, but the Lakers responded by scoring the next five points, while holding the Bulls scoreless for the next three and a half minutes.

More important than this single game victory and the temporary playoff position that it earned the Lakers is the improved chemistry the team is showing on the court. The communication was constant in this one defensively, with players giving their all on loose ball and rebound opportunities, while the body language overall was genuinely positive. The change from the way these guys interacted with each other in the opening months of the season is both noticeable and substantial.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some bumps along the way — Bryant was furious with Metta World Peace at the end of the first half, after he committed an offensive foul while Bryant was dribbling down the clock to get off a final shot. He yelled at Metta as the two walked back down the floor, but all was forgiven later when Bryant was seen with his arm around his teammate on the bench early in the fourth.

The extent of how much Howard can improve from a health standpoint as the Lakers close out the regular season, along with the amount of chemistry the team can continue to build during that time will largely determine its postseason fate.

Winning can cure a lot of issues, and certainly helps the team-building a lot more than it hurts. At least after Sunday’s victory, L.A. can now, if only briefly, officially see itself as part of the playoff picture.

Report: At least seven teams will try to pick of free agent Andre Iguodala from Warriors

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Golden State has a lot of free agents to retain or replace this summer if they are going to keep their championship team together. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are the two biggest names, but both going to get massive paydays from the team and are not going anywhere. Then there are the role players teams could try to pick off: Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West, plus Matt Barnes.

However, Andre Iguodala is the free agent most teams are targeting. At least seven teams have Iguodala on their radar, reports Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Andre Iguodala has become the foremost target in an attempt to weaken the Golden State Warriors’ chokehold on the NBA, league sources have told ESPN.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs, LA Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz are among the teams interested in the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, sources tell ESPN. It is not yet known if Iguodala will take meetings.

Iguodala, who just finished a close second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting, still can hit threes and bring some buckets, but more importantly he brings defense, flexibility, and leadership. He’s crucial to the switching small-ball lineups the Warriors employ, and he stepped up his game last season when Durant was down. Losing Iguodala would be a blow to these Warriors.

Durant has said he will take a little less money and structure his deal so that the Warriors can retain Iguodala and Livingston, but both of them are unrestricted free agents with options.

Iguodala, 33, is coming off a four-year, $48 million deal and the Warriors would like to retain him in that ballpark of $12 million a year or a little less. The question is the years, Golden State may want to do two, Iguodala will want four, and the likely will settle at three, but that could change or have options.

For Iguodala the question becomes: what if another team comes in over the top, promising a few million more a year and a starting role? At this point in his career, does he want to stay with the Warriors and win, or would that tug on his pocketbook and ego be too much of a draw? Iguodala has said he and GM Bob Myers have been clear and up front with each other throughout the season and talked out scenarios.

Iguodala likely re-signs with the Warriors, but with a number of teams hunting him it may not be that simple a decision.

Kevin Durant congratulates Westbrook on MVP: “F—- balled out. Gotta respect it!”

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Whatever animosity there is between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — and I don’t think it’s as much as some people want to drum it up to be — is more from the Westbrook side. He had the right to feel jilted, even if it was just business.

Monday night Westbrook won the NBA MVP award, and deservedly so after his historic season. Tuesday, Durant was congratulating the winners in the community section of his YouTube page, and that included Westbrook.

“Huge congrats to Russell Westbrook on MVP, that boy went out there and was a created player on 2k all year, F—– balled out. Gotta respect it!”

KD also had some love for his other former teammate, James Harden, who came in second in the MVP voting.

“Shoutout my boy James Harden. For 5 years now he’s taken his game to the next level, he will be an MVP one day, he’s an MVP now, he’s made so many people proud. I know this first hand, recognize what he has done for the game!”

Durant had love for everyone. Which is how he’s feeling after his bold move last summer paid off with a ring.

LaVar Ball confronts wrestler at WWE event (video)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LaVar Ball has brought his Big Baller Brand from the basketball court to the wrestling ring.

The outspoken father of NBA draft No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball showed up with the newly minted Los Angeles Laker and another son, 15-year-old LaMelo, for a live segment on Monday’s “WWE Raw” at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

During the segment, LaMelo Ball twice used the n-word, which was broadcast over the air. WWE says in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that the language “was not scripted nor reflects WWE’s values.”

For LaVar Ball’s appearance, the ring was decorated with mannequins displaying his Big Baller Brand clothing line. He got in a heated confrontation with WWE wrestler The Miz, and took his shirt off to cheers from the crowd.

Bulls, with Michael Carter-Williams, first team to decline extending qualifying offer to Rookie of the Year

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Just four years ago, Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year.

Now, the Bulls don’t even see a $4,187,599 qualifying offer as worth extending.

David Kaplan of CSN Chicago:

Credit Sam Hinkie for trading Carter-Williams (to the Bucks) at just the right moment, netting the 76ers a valuable Lakers first-round pick that Philadelphia used to trade up for Markelle Fultz. Carter-Williams hasn’t nearly lived up to the typical production of a former Rookie of the Year.

The Bulls got Carter-Williams far cheaper from Milwaukee, for Tony Snell (who had a breakout year with the Bucks). But Carter-Williams continued to regress in Chicago. It’s just hard for a point guard with such a shaky outside shot, and Carter-Williams’ injuries haven’t helped.

With a smorgasbord of point guards that now includes Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne, the Bulls can move on.

Carter-Williams can probably latch on as a backup point guard somewhere. As an unrestricted free agent, teams will have greater comfort pursuing him. But this is a blow for someone with such a big accolade on his résumé.